LONDON — Lice shampoo—more than one bottle for every two residents. Sand-fly nets—more than 1,000 of them, designed to stop the spread of leishmaniasis, a sand-fly-borne skin disorder that isn’t prevalent in southern Syria.
After four years, the 4,000 residents of the besieged Damascus suburb of Darayya received their first official multi-agency United Nations aid convoy Wednesday. But documents viewed by The Daily Beast show that the convoy carried items that are largely useless to the population, whose primary concerns are starvation and disease. And even at that, the Assad government gave the convoy permission for the partial delivery in an eleventh-hour concession to stop the UN from staging air drops of desperately needed aid.
Darayya is only 15 kilometers—fewer than 10 miles—from downtown Damascus. Despite extensive social media fanfare by the agencies taking part in the convoy, the first “successful” delivery to the area since 2012 was far from cause for celebration for the besieged residents.
“It is unprecedented in areas of conflict that the UN and the aid community as a whole is not allowed to access an area for four years,” a UN official who did not want to be named for fear of the impact on the work of their organization, told The Daily Beast.
The U.S, Britain and France have pressed the UN to start the air drops, but as the BBC is reporting, UN deputy special envoy for Syria Ramzi Essedine Ramzi says they are not “imminent.” Jan Egeland, UN humanitarian coordinator, says deliveries are planned for Friday, but suggested they may be delayed, claiming there are “clear indications” the deliveries will go ahead some time in the next several days.
So, for now, there’s no food and precious few medicines. A Darayya resident told The Daily Beast that even the small number of medicines received were, “not close to enough according to the field hospital, and only small part was [what was] really needed.”
Images apparently from the besieged suburb, which could not be independently verified by The Daily Beast, showed trucks arriving that were half empty and contained boxes which appeared to have been ransacked en route.
Former UN staff members told The Daily Beast that on other occasions, even once the location of a delivery had been approved by the government and the contents of the delivery agreed between the UN agencies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, interference can then occur while the trucks are loaded and again at checkpoints.
This previously occurred in Darayya when a partial delivery of aid finally was approved last month, but turned back on May 13 by Syrian government forces manning the final checkpoint at the edge of the suburb. At the time a UN spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters that the UN aborted the mission to Darayya “because the convoy was refused entry, due to the medical and nutritional supplies on board.”
Following the departure of the convoy, civilians in Darayya were shelled by Syrian army positions. Negotiations among all parties have been ongoing since, to secure access.
According to information provided to The Daily Beast, written approval from the Syrian government, which approves or rejects—but frequently simply ignores—all requests for aid delivery, came late on May 30, just 24 hours before the deadline to provide access to besieged areas set by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG).
The deadline was set after the international coalition of countries met last month and agreed that airdrops of aid would begin if access to besieged areas was not forthcoming; 16 of the 19 areas in Syria under siege are besieged by the Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
The viability of deliveries in the coming days, remains unclear as the 48 hour local truce between government forces and rebel groups in Darayya is due to expire at midnight Thursday night, prior to the scheduled delivery of food items to the besieged area.
In the days leading up to the current truce there was heavy shelling in the area and residents of Darayya expect it to continue. The frequent shelling means most residents live primarily in basements, and field clinics are run underground, to avoid injury. This makes Wednesday’s delivery of sand-fly nets all the more baffling. The risk of transmission is very low in the south, especially for those living underground.
Darayya was one of early strongholds of dissent against the Assad government when the uprising began in Syria in 2011. When many local residents were arrested, locals took up arms. In August 2012, a massacre of several hundred people took place at the hands of Syrian Arab Army forces and regime loyalist militias (shabiha). In November of that year, military checkpoints appeared around the suburb and access into or out of Darayya has been extremely difficult since.
Many humanitarian workers are appalled that their work is impeded so extensively in Syria. “The truth is, these places aren’t ‘hard-to-reach’ in a way that would normally require airdrops; they’re ‘hard-to-reach’ because they’ve become political bargaining chits,” says Ashley Proud, humanitarian director of Mercy Corps in Syria. “The only reason we aren’t able to get aid in through cost-effective ground access is the intransigence of parties to the conflict. The ISSG and international community must push harder for consistent, unfettered access for all humanitarian groups. The continued failure to allow for the delivery of life-saving aid to innocent civilians is shameful.”
According to information shared with The Daily Beast, 23 requests for access were made by UN agencies in Damascus in May, aiming to reach 35 areas; 15 of those were approved, of which yesterday’s delivery was one. Not all of the approved requests have resulted in deliveries for varying reasons, some to do with security and others because local actors have blocked them, including localized Syrian government officials. For the month of June, similar numbers of requests for access were made, while the Syrian government added a number of locations to the list which they have recently regained control of, such as Palmyra. The outcome of these requests to reach “hard-to-reach” areas is still unclear.
While in the majority of besieged areas access is restricted by the Syrian government forces, in a handful of cases the areas are besieged by other actors. Notably, in the eastern city of Deir Ezzour, government loyalists are under siege by ISIS forces.
The World Food Programme (WFP) is working with Syrian and Russian actors to provide food aid to those civilians by airdrop. Over 40 kilos of food aid per resident has so far been delivered, according to UN documents, although the nature of airdrops prevents aid agencies from verifying how much is received by each beneficiary. These drops have been heralded by United Nations envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura as an example of the success of such measures, despite the fact they required no concessions by the Syrian government and did not result in access to any of the areas the government has under siege.
The system of approval and denial of access for aid convoys has been controversial throughout the conflict, which has now been raging for more than five years. The Syrian government has used “starve and siege” all along, meaning dozens of areas are deprived of food, medicines and basic needs, despite the enormous humanitarian presence in the country.
In 2014, United Nations Security Council resolutions were passed to allow humanitarian aid to enter Syria “cross-border” from neighboring countries without the government’s permission as access had been repeatedly denied and NGOs were working secretly in the country at great risk.
In Damascus, out of respect for Syrian sovereignty, United Nations agencies are forced to work closely with the Syrian government, to determine where they can provide aid and which items they can provide. Agencies are terrified of losing access to large parts of the country, or having their visas and imports denied, if they do not cooperate.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Wednesday that the latest agreement was a cynical move designed to avoid airdrops of aid to besieged areas of the country. “While air drops are complex, costly and risky, they are now the last resort to relieve human suffering across many besieged areas,” he said after the convoys arrived in Darayya and Moadamiyeh, another area under siege.
The threat of airdrops is being used in political circles to attempt to force the hand of the Syrian government, but in reality they are unlikely to begin any time soon.
In fact, airdrops are not the best way to deliver food and medicine. The International Committee of the Red Cross position paper on the use of airdrops for aid identifies the difficulty in assessing need and the likelihood of doing harm in the process of dropping the aid as reasons to proceed cautiously. Combined with the fact many of Syria’s besieged areas are urban and surrounded by multiple hostile actors, the likelihood of the ISSG, or any of its members, coordinating and approving unilateral airborne aid drops to Syria’s most deprived areas any time soon is slim.
But until then, the residents of Darayya and other besieged areas have no choice but to wait, and hope that a food delivery makes it through, if not tomorrow, then soon. And even food isn’t enough, says one: “UN resolutions are about ending siege, not just delivering aid. Siege and starving people is a war crime. What people need is to lift sieges and enable people to get back to their normal lives again.”